Gesticulating with his shackled right hand, the 37-year-old Afghan pleaded with tribunal members for about an hour before members closed the session to review classified material. The tribunals are meant to decide whether detainees should be released or remain held as "enemy combatants," a classification that gives them fewer legal protections.
All of the detainees being held at the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo are accused of links to Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime or the al Qaeda terror network.
"I joined the Taliban to make a living for my family," the slight, bearded man said in a prepared statement and read through a Pashto interpreter. "I was just a small soldier. I wasn't a big leader in the Taliban."
But the U.S. military says the man — held in Guantanamo Bay for more than 2½ years — not only fought for the Taliban on the front lines, but also served around 2000 as an acting Taliban governor in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
The man denied that, telling the three-member panel that he and other guards mediated some community disputes for about eight months when the governor was away visiting his family.
"We were there for eight or nine months but we weren't actually in charge," said the man, dressed in orange prison garb and with his feet shackled and chained to the floor.
He said he served as a body guard for two different Taliban governors and a senior Taliban official beginning in the late 1990s as a way support his family. He said was issued a Kalashnikov rifle but never fired it in battle.
"The only thing I did is serve with the Taliban ... that was my only mistake," the prisoner said. "I'm really a poor person. I don't have a lot of resources. I did this to survive, to make a living for my family."
It was the 13th hearing to be heard since the military convened the Combatant Status Review Tribunals on July 30. So far, six men — three Yemenis, one Saudi, one Moroccan and one Iranian- have refused to appear.
The military, which prohibits the media from releasing the names of the detainees, has given no reason for their absence, other than to say they have been generally uncooperative.
The hearings are the first formal chance for detainees to plead their cases since they began arriving at the U.S. base in January 2002.
In Monday's hearing, the U.S. military alleged the Afghan fought on the front lines in Mazar-e-Sharif and later moved to the Afghan city of Kunduz. Sometime later, officials said he was captured with one Taliban leader and five fighters who agreed to surrender to the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance.
The prisoner said he was on his way to visit his family and had no weapon when he surrendered.
"I assure you under oath I never thought about fighting against the United States or its allies," he said. "I'm not even thinking in the future to fight against them (Americans)."
Human rights groups have condemned the process as unfair, saying detainees aren't allowed lawyers and that the three military officers on each review panel can't be considered impartial. The military says panel officers are neutral.
On Saturday, a Tunisian detainee testified that he was abused while in captivity in Afghanistan before being brought to the prison camp. The 35-year-old said he was held in the dark without sufficient drinking water for more than two months in Afghanistan, military officials told reporters, who were not present at the hearing.
The military convened the panels after the Supreme Court ruled in June that detainees can challenge their detention in U.S. courts.
The process is separate from upcoming military tribunals that are to try an initial group of four prisoners on war crimes conspiracy and other charges. Pretrial hearings are planned later this month.
By Stevenson Jacobs